This is decidedly not a utilitarian post as many of my recent posts have been. The truth is I have just completed my thesis and am preparing for defense in July. All of that writing energy that has been dedicated to that task will now turn, naturally, back to my home here on this blog (and to the assorted papers and projects that have been stewing in my head these last three years). I have been blogging more or less for the last twelve years or so and have found no better space for conspicuous contemplation. A controlled and productive isolation.

“He is one of those who has had the wilderness for a pillow, and called a star his brother. Alone. But loneliness can be a communion.” ― Dag Hammarskjöld

And somewhere in this isolation (not a material isolation, mind you; my wife is in the other room as I write this), as the ideas emerging from my thesis settle and cease to demand such attention (not unlike an infant, or so I have been told), an electrified balance takes hold. It still sizzles, but it is stable. It is, for lack of a better term, an effortful stasis. It is liminality.

My thesis research explored how Korean graduate students were evidencing trajectories through mobile technology, how they were managing their multimemberships, how they were actualizing their “imagined communities”: “such communities include future relationships that exist only in the learner’s imagination as well as affiliations – such as nationhood or even transnational communities” (Kanno & Norton, 2003). I thought, and still think, this process is much more complex that contemporary research in mobile learning would suggest.

As it turns out, many of these graduate students were perfectly willing to manage multimemberships without centering towards one. Many made no explicit overtures towards a professional or disciplinary community, yet maintained and even augmented relationships with both; for many, community identity amidst this activity was governed more through informal or socialized communities rather than professional or disciplinary ones. Again, we see the importance, almost supremacy, of sociocultural practice. In short, all were perfectly content (insofar as the evidence would suggest) of residing in some sort of oscillating stasis. Just at the edges, the margins of community practice. No need to pass the threshold yet, thank you very much, that might spell some sort of irrevocable transformation. Content in their “conflicted” and “contested” identities. Moored and unmoored at the same time (thank you and goodnight, John Urry). If mobility is everything, then it is nothing (Adey, 2006). Maybe all the mobilities led to immobility.

I thought, how strange this is. Why wouldn’t they evidence one dominant mobility? One motion in particular that transcended all? I thought that between inclination, predilection, opportunity, capacity, one would prove dominant. And for many it did. It was just those edge cases. Too many to be outliers. Too few to be in the middle of the bell curve.

Then I remembered I am an expat. Liminality is our structure.

Expat Life

“My life is a sort of persistent liminality. A trajectory of no trajectory. The moored mobility of infinite choice.” (Yes, I can quote myself)

I have been meaning to write a love letter to expat-ness for quite some time. It has come out in other ways. Playlists. Media projects and compositions. All the ridiculous audio recordings I collect on my travels. Even my research focus. I am attracted to these ‘others’ who live at the margins. I am attracted to the types of mobility they exhibit and the costs that mobility demands. I am attracted to the materiality of their lives, the intersections and juxtapositions inherent to the expat life. I still marvel at how, in a city I have lived in the better part of my adult life, I can be taken aback by the unfamiliar. I am confronted with something so foreign to my understanding that I am forced to construct the “generalized elsewhere” to scaffold some meaning from it. I link it to something “known”, however incongruous: New York. Ohio. London. I hear a crosswalk sound in Hong Kong and link it to a church bell in London. They are relational because I related them. I construct my madeleines through my media.

Yet even the known is unknown. I don’t viscerally know New York or Ohio any longer. I am an American, but not. I am of there, but not in there. Being an expat teaches that there is no there. There are no waypoints on some larger trajectory. There is merely movement, oscillations, reactions. My imagined communities, my intentional state entailment emerging from my narrative (thank you, Bruner) makes some of this predictable. I want to be X so my movements will somehow or another be derivatives of that want. I am bound in some way by my thirst, my desire for a particular movement.

Yet, it surprises even me how totalizing that movement becomes. It enacts the obvious spatial mobility and the less obvious emotional mobility: this unmooring, when first presented, is comprehended as the beautiful violence of absolute freedom. I have never encountered, in my life, its equal; it is raw, beautiful, and altogether terrifying. Most immediately scramble for structure to offset its power.

Other mobilities follow suit. Material mobility. You literally stop caring about stuff; I own nothing that I cannot shed. Relational mobility: friendships become not necessarily ephemeral, but being in the same physical location as friends isn’t the inherent default position. It is absolute luxury and altogether temporary, however lamentable. Imaginative mobility: I see very little interference between what I dream and what I set out to do. They are linked through deliberation and execution in ways that are hard to explain.

Yet, it isn’t the mobility so much as the perception that emerges as a result. I am forced to link crosswalks to church bells to make sense of it. I am awake in ways that are hard to explain, sometimes excessively so. I don’t sleep much (more a manifestation of my psychology that my expat-ness, but it contributes). I can’t turn it off. I bound out of bed, for the most part, because I honestly have no idea what dreams may come in that day. I am awash in possibility. I perceive with new eyes.

“The question is not what you look at, but what you see. It is only necessary to behold the least fact or phenomenon, however familiar, from a point a hair’s breadth aside from our habitual path or routine, to be overcome, enchanted by its beauty and significance.” ― Henry David Thoreau

All of this seeps its way into my research: aesthetic literacy in open learning, pedagogy, surveillance, fieldwork, and so forth. Not all of it is appreciated. I have received questions on interviews that speak to disapproval. I have been told before what I was signalling was anathema, or at least counter, to established work spaces. I understand I will need to make adjustments to pass that threshold.

But if not, I will linger here a bit longer in this liminality, blissfully born along by the current.



Adey, P. (2006). If mobility is everything then it is nothing: towards a relational politics of (im) mobilities. Mobilities, 1(1), 75-94.

Bruner, J. (1991). The narrative construction of reality. Critical inquiry, 18(1), 1-21.

Kanno, Y., & Norton, B. (2003). ‘Imagined communities and educational possibilities: Introduction’. Journal of language, identity, and education, 2(4), 241-249.

Sheller , M. and Urry , J. 2004. Tourism Mobilities: Places to Play, Places in Play, London: Routledge. (Eds)

By Michael Gallagher

My name is Michael Sean Gallagher. I am a Lecturer in Digital Education at the Centre for Research in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh. I am Co-Founder and Director of Panoply Digital, a consultancy dedicated to ICT and mobile for development (M4D); we have worked with USAID, GSMA, UN Habitat, Cambridge University and more on education and development projects. I was a researcher on the Near Futures Teaching project, a project that explores how teaching at The University of Edinburgh unfold over the coming decades, as technology, social trends, patterns of mobility, new methods and new media continue to shift what it means to be at university. Previously, I was the Research Associate on the NERC, ESRC, and AHRC Global Challenges Research Fund sponsored GCRF Research for Emergency Aftershock Forecasting (REAR) project. I was an Assistant Professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (한국외국어대학교) in Seoul, Korea. I have also completed a doctorate at University College London (formerly the independent Institute of Education, University of London) on mobile learning in the humanities in Korea.

9 thoughts on “Expat-ness as mobility: imagined communities and liminality”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.